Huge test of character against Wicklow for Antrim footballers
Allianz National Football League: Wicklow v Antrim (today, Aughrim, 12.30pm)
THINGS couldn’t have been going any better for the Antrim footballers when the pandemic struck back in early March.
After losing down in Sligo by a single point, they’d steadied themselves with a battling comeback display to draw with Carlow in Glenavy before producing a brilliant performance to see off Division Four leaders Limerick in the wide open spaces of Portglenone.
That was seven months ago but it’s a performance that in some ways has managed to sustain the squad during the prolonged break.
With that blistering 2-21 show, the Antrim squad reconvened mid-September with promotion very much within their sights.
As they take to the field in Aughrim this afternoon what’s changed since March?
Well, manager Lenny Harbinson has added more quality to his squad following a hugely successful and entertaining club championship series.
Returning quartet Kevin O’Boyle, Mark Sweeney, Ryan Murray and Pat McCormack will all be pushing for starting positions against hosts Wicklow who are also in the promotion hunt.
One notable absentee is Michael McCann who is ruled out with a hand injury sustained in training.
It’s hard to overstate the Cargin man’s absence to the Antrim cause in Aughrim today.
Having only returned to the fold before lockdown after several years away, McCann was expected to be the creative hub of this Antrim team, the quarter-back who could maximise the strong and willing runners down the flanks.
Antrim undoubtedly have the running power in their ranks to cause Wicklow trouble, but they might lack that added element of composure and decision-making in possession without McCann’s cuteness.
It therefore adds an extra burden on Conor Murray to break lines and open up the Wicklow defence, but the Lamh Dhearg attacker will be unfazed by his responsibilities as the Saffrons aim to take one more decisive step towards Division Three football next year.
Pat Shivers must have been on Harbinson’s radar for one last push for promotion too.
The Cargin youngster is one of the most accurate shooters in the county and displayed remarkable resilience and skill in his club’s semi-final and final wins over Lamh Dhearg and Creggan Kickhams, respectively.
Shivers might have given Antrim an intriguing option from the bench today – but, in fairness, Harbinson has invested heavily in Ruairi McCann of Aghgallon who can offer the side a similar physical presence on the edge of the square, if it’s required.
Antrim could do with a bit more craft in their attack, although they have some impressive options on the bench that could provide it, including Paddy Cunningham, Ruairi McCann and young Adam Loughran of Aghgallon, assuming they don't start.
The Antrim squad has had roughly 12 sessions completed since the middle of September. They are a strong, fit, mobile unit whose defence will be boosted by McCormack, O’Boyle and possibly Sweeney should they need a director of operations in there.
Davy Byrne’s Wicklow side will draw a big chunk of his squad from county champions Baltinglass who won their 23rd title last month.
The Garden County sit just one point behind Antrim in a real bottle-neck of Division Four. Aughrim is one of those unromantic places where it tests a player’s character – but also where promotion tilts can be decided.
Forget the provincial Championship. This is Antrim’s real Championship today.